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Middle East and Africa: Insights from the Pilsen Workshop

2024-05-15 10:45

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#InternationalRelations, #Geopolitics , #HornOfAfrica , #Africa , #PilsenWorkshop , #UniversityOfWestBohemia , #History , #ItaloOttomanWar , #ColonialHistory ,

Middle East and Africa: Insights from the Pilsen Workshop

Examining historical and geopolitical complexities in the Middle East and Africa, focusing on the Italo-Ottoman War, Horn of Africa and Syria.


Pilsen, Czech Republic – Scholars, researchers, and practitioners gathered at the University of West Bohemia for the Middle East and Africa Workshop, an event organized by the Department of Middle Eastern Studies in collaboration with the Czech-Slovak Institute of Oriental Studies. The workshop, moderated by Jan Zahorik, Senior Advisor for Africa at the Czech-Slovak Institute of Oriental Studies, featured compelling presentations and discussions that delved into the historical, geopolitical, and contemporary issues shaping these regions.



Historical Interconnections: The Italian-Ottoman War and the Horn of Africa


The symposium began with an enlightening presentation by Massimo Zaccaria from the University of Pavia, a renowned scholar on Ethiopian history. His presentation titled “Horn of Africa Countries in the Italo-Ottoman War of 1911-1912” offered a nuanced view of the interconnectedness of Italian colonialism and the Horn of Africa.


“Though they might seem unrelated, the Italian-Ottoman War and the Horn of Africa are deeply connected,” Zaccaria stated. He explained how Eritrea, Somalia, and Libya, although treated as separate territories by historians, shared a common military and cultural history during the Italian colonial period. “Eritrea was transformed into a military colony, with many soldiers coming from Ethiopia. This connection extended to economic and social structures, deeply influencing Eritrean society.”


Zaccaria also highlighted the cultural ties rooted in religious brotherhoods across Libya, Sudan, and Somalia, and how these pre-colonial links shaped the region’s responses to colonial and post-colonial challenges. His detailed analysis provided a fresh perspective on the interconnectedness of political and social histories in the Horn of Africa.


Elaborating further, Zaccaria noted, “The use of Eritrean and Ethiopian troops extended beyond mere military utility. It forged a complex web of relationships and dependencies that influenced the social and economic fabric of the Horn of Africa. These soldiers brought back experiences and cultural exchanges that reshaped their home societies.”


Zaccaria also addressed the role of Italian colonialism in transforming Eritrea into a militarized society. "The Italian administration's reliance on Eritrean troops had profound implications for the region. It not only shaped the colony's military structure but also its economic and social dynamics. The Eritrean soldiers' involvement in the Libyan war was a turning point that left a lasting impact on their community."




Strategic Insights: Understanding the Geopolitical Landscape of the Horn of Africa


Next, Kalaeb T. Sigatu from Ethiopia, an expert in geopolitics and strategic security studies, took the stage. His presentation focused on the strategic importance and complex geopolitical landscape of the Horn of Africa.

“The Horn of Africa is one of the most geopolitically significant regions in the world,” Sigatu asserted. “Its location at the crossroads of the Middle East, Africa, and Europe makes it crucial for global trade and security.” He elaborated on the strategic significance of the Red Sea, through which about 10% of global trade passes, and the military bases in Djibouti, highlighting the intense international interest in the region.





Sigatu provided a comprehensive overview of the eight countries in the Horn of Africa, discussing their unique challenges and geopolitical dynamics. He addressed ongoing civil wars, authoritarian regimes, food insecurity, and resource competition, while also pointing out the region’s opportunities for economic development and renewable energy.


“Ethiopia, despite its internal conflicts, has the potential to lead in regional peacekeeping and mediation,” Sigatu noted. He emphasized the importance of international cooperation and strategic partnerships in addressing the region’s challenges.


Sigatu also highlighted the historical and cultural complexities of the region. “The colonial borders drawn by European powers have left a legacy of conflict and division. These artificial boundaries do not reflect the cultural and ethnic realities of the region, leading to ongoing disputes and tensions.”


Democracy and Conflict in Syria


The final speaker, Issam Khoury, a journalist and Senior Advisor for the Levant at the Czech-Slovak Institute of Oriental Studies based in New York, presented a gripping account of the challenges to democracy in the Middle East, focusing on Syria. Khoury’s personal experiences as a journalist who faced arrest and exile added a poignant layer to his analysis.


“In 2011, I was arrested by the Syrian government for my work in exposing corruption and advocating for democracy,” Khoury recounted. “Despite these challenges, I continued to report on the Syrian civil war and push for democratic reforms.”


Khoury discussed the impact of Iran’s influence through militias in Syria, the fragmented nature of the opposition, and the Assad regime’s reliance on Russian support. He proposed the “Parallel Zones Project,” a strategic plan to secure the Syrian-Iraqi border and prevent the movement of radical terrorists.


“This project aims to establish secure zones managed by local Syrian teams with international support,” Khoury explained. “By disrupting the supply lines of militias and stabilizing the region, we can pave the way for peace and reconstruction.”



Khoury also touched on the broader implications of his work. "The challenges we face in Syria are not isolated. They reflect broader regional dynamics, including the influence of foreign powers and the struggles for control over key territories. Our efforts to promote democracy and stability must take these factors into account."



Engaging Discussions and Future Directions


The workshop concluded with an engaging Q&A session, where participants discussed the implications of the presentations. Questions ranged from the historical impact of military traditions in Eritrea to India’s involvement in the Horn of Africa. The discussions underscored the importance of understanding historical contexts and international dynamics in addressing contemporary issues.


One participant asked about the relationship between the Alaskari and the current military establishment in Eritrea. Zaccaria responded, "While I cannot prove it definitively, there is a strong possibility that the military traditions from the Italian colonial period influenced present-day Eritrea. The long history of military service has deeply ingrained a martial culture in Eritrean society."


Another question focused on India's presence in the region. Sigatu remarked, "India's involvement, particularly in trade and maritime security, is growing. However, it is not as prominent as the influence of China or the US, but it remains a significant player in the regional dynamics."


Jan Zahorik wrapped up the event by thanking the speakers and participants for their contributions. “Today’s workshop has provided invaluable insights into the complex histories and current challenges of the Middle East and Africa. It’s clear that international cooperation and informed strategic initiatives are crucial for promoting stability and development in these regions.”


The Middle East and Africa Workshop at the University of West Bohemia highlighted the intricate interplay of history, geopolitics, and contemporary issues in these dynamic regions. The insights shared by scholars like Massimo Zaccaria, Kalaeb T. Sigatu, and Issam Khoury underscore the need for continued research and dialogue to foster understanding and collaboration in addressing the challenges and opportunities ahead.

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